Best places to slaughter a cold
Escondido gets little love in this county, but its merits are noteworthy. Take, for instance, 24-hour Peterson's Donut corner at the intersection of gluttony, insomnia and Ninth Avenue. Or, in the spirit of killing a cold instead of your vital organs, Lourdes Mexican Food.
Lourdes (650 S. Escondido Blvd.) is mostly a typical taco shop—but then there's the soup. The rice, cilantro, onion, avocado-topped holy grail is the fine chicken-toting broth that enters the stomach so soundly that it will stealthily annihilate whatever transitory illness you're fighting (minus Chlamydia). It's like an assassin. Order half a bowl for $5.79 or a full for $6.99.
If, however, you're feeling chitty and coastal North County is more appealing, a jaunt to Jorge's Mexicatessen in Encinitas (267 N. El Camino Real, Suite E) is a fine idea. I found this little gem recently when the bogey-cold-man had the hubby by his lovelies and Escondido looked like a distant mirage. Person after person exited with at least one Styrofoam container (I'm not touting it for its eco-persuasions) of soup, bound in a plastic bag. It's like grace and morphine running through the veins. Sure, the term "Mexicatessen" is off-putting, but let the hubby's sparkling vital organs be a testament to the healing power of which only Jesus, Jorge and Lourdes are capable.—Brook Larios
Best pho joint for a vegetarian and a meat-eater
Sacrifices must be made by the meat-eater who falls in love with a vegetarian. All-you can-eat wing nights? Gone. Grill-your-own-steak joints? Done. Vietnamese pho, with fatty, raw meat and tendon? Not so fast.
It's true that most Vietnamese pho places wouldn't make the cut. The noodle soup is a red-meat-lover's fantasy and a vegetarian's nightmare. Even if the restaurant does serve a vegetarian spring roll or mock-duck sandwich, it's still a dinner date of inequality.
That's why Pho Fifth Avenue (3807 Fifth Ave. in Hillcrest), which opened last year, has become one of my favorite restaurants. Not only does it serve a satisfying meaty pho, but also probably the best-tasting and best-looking vegetarian pho my girlfriend and I have come across. It's not a stretch to say that vegetarian broth might be tastier than the beefy original; nor would it be a lie to say that a meat-eater will be a little envious of the vegetarian's broccoli.
This is a place where an omnivore and herbivore can sit and sip and splatter like a loving couple should—assuming the vegetarian is also willing torn make the small sacrifice of not being grossed out by her partner slurping a length of tripe.
Best wings, hands down
Not to start an East Coast-West Coast war or anything, but hot wings as Buffalonians invented them are a bore. Their signature, one-dimensional blast of vinegary hot sauce and drab cooking technique do little to sex up the chicken's flesh and skin to the effect of "Dirty" wings from South Park Abbey (1946 fern St.)—a more radical and flavorful interpretation of America's favorite bar food, with some original influences that I can get behind.
Chef Justin North is an admitted wing fanatic offering the only hickory-smoked variety in town; already plump and flavorful wings then take a brief dip in the fryer, crisping skin before it meets one of 10 original sauces. The most enticing wings—dirty style—are coated in a threeway of Buffalo, sweet-and-spicy Asian and ranch sauces for a fierce flavor-texture combo. Charred, smoky skin crunches over meat that mingles with a taste of hot wing here, unmistakable ranch over there and the sweet tang of chili throughout. Happy-hour prices run all day Monday and Tuesday through Friday from 3 to 7 p.m. when guests plow through orders of the most arousing San Diego-bo wings ($7), washed down with a $1.50 local beer.
—Amy T. Granite
Best place to get down and dirty with your Chai
If you drive on Ingraham Street, you've likely passed by Caffe Veloce, the organic-coffee drive-through on the corner of Ingraham and hornblend Street (4450 Ingraham St. in Pacific Beach). Veloce, which opened in 1993, was the first drive-through café in San Diego.
With mochas made from melted Mexican chocolate bars and the recent addition of soy, coconut, almond, hemp and rice milks, it's hard to make a wrong drink choice. However, there comes a point in every café-lover's life when they get bored with the simple, classic blends. And that's where Veloce's dirty Chai comes into play. A dirty Chai sounds mysterious and rebellious, but it's really just a delicious Chai látte with added espresso and is described by Veloce's owner, Donna Renick, as "sweet and spicy with a nice kick." Making this hot cup of goodness even sweeter is the fact that all of Veloce's coffee and espresso beans are fair-trade and organic, as are some of the milks.
Though the most popular drink at Caffe Veloce is the melted-chocolate mocha, take hold of your adventurous side and get the best dirty Chai in town.
Best place for the whole family to eat goat meat
I love goat meat—not only is it delicious; it's also one of the healthiest meats in the world. I prefer it in big chunks, right off the bone, served atop a heaping pile of spiced rice. That's how it comes at Fatuma's Restaurant (4069 University Ave. in City Heights), a lovely new spot that's become a regular haunt of mine.
Owned by a local Somali businessman, Fatuma's primarily caters to the area's bustling Somali community. It's basically a deluxe version of Safari Grill (4990 University Ave.), a low-key spot with the same owner. Both restaurants serve the same traditional fare, but Fatuma's also has tasty, affordable halal pizza. And while Safari Grill can sometimes feel like an exclusive boy's club—most of the clientele are Somali men who drink tea and talk politics—Fatuma's is a place for the family. Indeed, it's not uncommon to see cute little kids scampering around the place.
For whatever reason, goat meat isn't actually on the menu posted on the wall. But, trust me—it's there. Big ol' chunks of it. And the delicious rice, too. Just ask for it, and tell them the mzungu who loves goat meat sent you.
Best place to do the Baja mariscos tradition thing right
What began as a food cart in Tijuana in the 1980s serving popular surfer-grub is now Bonita's action-packed TJ Oyster Bar (4246 Bonita Road), a crowded strip-mall joint that can't fix mariscos addicts fast enough. A seat at the bar overlooks the tiny open kitchen where a couple of fry and grill masters crank out fish tacos with the speed and precision of a conveyor belt, all the while chopping fresh veggies and other seafood destined for equally beloved, tangy cocktails. The scene works me into a feeding frenzy every time.
I like to kick off a hangover with the hot and sour aguachile. Whole prawns plump with onions and cucumbers in a bowl of chilled, spicy-citrus cooking liquid that's meant for drinking in between bites and wipes of the sweat from your brow—it'll also wake up your taste buds for the best fish tacos in town. Comfort food San Diego-style—good luck resisting several of the authentic, 99-cent golden-fried fish delights.
Each comes wrapped in a small corn tortilla with the usual Baja toppings—cabbage, tomatoes and crema.
—Amy T. Granite
Best place to leave the pretentiousness at the door
Vanessa Williams and Vivica Fox might make a man melt, but not like the finger-licking deliciousness that is Bonnie Jean's Soul Food Café (1964 54th St. in Oak Park).
Calorie-crunchers, beware: This isn't child's play. If I could somehow ring out a plate of the divine fried chicken, I'd have enough grease to oil my eternally squeaky front door, my neighbor's, and my other neighbor's. And unless you grew up in a southern, African-American household, it's simply not your mama's fried chicken, especially when Bonnie Jean herself slathers it with a helping (equals four servings) of homemade gravy and serves it with a side of waffles—and mashed potatoes. Oh, for crying out loud, stop sobbing—embrace it.
Enter: Mac 'n' cheese, collard greens, corn bread, dirty rice, okra and a nap. Get there on a Sunday during football season and you'll know you're in the presence of legitimate San Diegans; a Chargers game is on, and if it's slow, 22-year-old Kenneth Mayfield is vocal about his allegiance.
Kenneth Mayfield? Son of Stephanie Luckett, who, with her older sister Katrina, opened Bonnie Jean's 15 years ago. Kenneth and Bonnie Jean now helm it.
Designers, be damned. Existing for 15 years, it turns out, is a better path to ideal ambiance. From tchotchkes and trinkets that look like they migrated from the family's home to a row of simply dressed tables, the unpretentiousness is heartening.
Best place to get wondrous wontons
Pala's pan-Asian noodle joint, simply named Noodles (11154 Hwy. 76), serves a delicious bowl of wonton noodle soup. The broth is a little light on the inexplicable seafood-y umami that's key to a good bowl of wonton noodle soup, but it's good. The noodles are egg-based, as they should be, but different from the usual store-bought variety. Slightly thicker than typical egg noodles, they're perfectly cooked and have a nice chew to them. I'm disappointed that they gaish with scallions instead of yellow chives, but that's minor when considering the wontons themselves.
It's rare to find a great wonton. A nod to a truly traditional bowl, they're shrimp-only, and the shrimp is kept mostly whole. The wrapper is delicate without being mushy, chewy without being tough. The bowl is huge with a generous amount of wontons, which is a good thing, considering the $11.95 price tag.
Noodles offers noodle dishes and appetizers from a variety of Asian cuisines. The Cantonese crispy chow mein is good, but skip the BBQ pork buns. For fried dumpling enthusiasts, the pot stickers are actually more like gyoza—small, deep-fried pork dumplings.